Arduous legal battle against NATO for use of depleted uranium ammunition
Published: Jun 27, 2024 07:14 PM
A Serbian visitor looks at an anti-NATo poster at an exhibition in Sochi, Russia on March 6, 2024 Photo: VCG

A Serbian visitor looks at an anti-NATO poster at an exhibition in Sochi, Russia on March 6, 2024 Photo: VCG

Editor's Note:

NATO, which was supposed to be dissolved after the Cold War, turns 75 this year. 25 years ago, around 15 tons of depleted uranium bombs were dropped by NATO on Yugoslavia. As a result of these bombings, over 30,000 people are diagnosed with cancer in the first 10 years since the bombing, making Serbia now the country that has the highest rates of cancer in Europe and one of the highest in the world. On behalf of these people and their families, Serbian lawyer Srdjan Aleksic (Aleksic) began a legal process against NATO in 2021. In the Global Times (GT)'s Insight Talk program with reporter Wang Wenwen, Aleksic talked about this case and the role NATO now plays in the world.

GT: What do you think of NATO's role in the escalation of conflict and the cold war atmosphere in the world?

Aleksic: It is interesting to consider the evolution of NATO from its foundation until today, especially in the context of "tectonic" geopolitical shifts on the world stage. As witnesses of the epochal changes that have occurred since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which also marked the end of the Cold War era between the Eastern and Western blocs, in the past 35 years we have seen that there has been no improvement in relations between the two world superpowers. In fact, with the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, supported by NATO, which threatens to turn into a general world nuclear conflict, the very survival of civilization is at stake.

The collateral damage of the conflict is the complete economic and cultural ruin of Europe led by Germany as its strongest member, not to mention small countries. The fact is that in 1999, after the reunification of Germany and the withdrawal of all Soviet troops from Eastern Europe, NATO accepted three countries of the former Warsaw Pact - Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary - as members, and now it has even reached "neutral" Sweden, thus going against its promise of non-expansion to the East.

Instead of the supposed keeper of peace in the world, NATO became the striking fist of the US, and the best example of this is the illegal aggression against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) in 1999. After 75 years since its founding, as the geopolitical map of the world is changing, and China is competing with the US as the world leader with its technological development and economic growth, the North Atlantic alliance is still the main support of America in all the wars it has started and is starting around the world.

GT: A quarter of a century has passed since the NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia with depleted uranium ammunition. How did it affect the physical and psychological status of people who were exposed to the effects of these weapons?

Aleksic: The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 was extremely destructive, because depleted uranium is a heavy radioactive material that has so far been used exclusively by NATO countries in armed conflicts, despite knowing that the use of this type of ammunition leaves very serious consequences. The UN General Assembly and the European Parliament adopted several resolutions warning of the potential harmful effects of depleted uranium on human health and the environment, and the European Parliament even called on EU members to adopt a moratorium on its use together with NATO.

However, despite the initiatives of the international community, this never happened. Therefore, the status of weapons with depleted uranium must be considered in the light of the general rules of international humanitarian law. Former Minister of Health of Serbia, Dr Danica Grujicic, said that a nuclear and chemical war was waged against the FRY in 1999 with serious consequences for people's health. These consequences include the increase in the number of malignant diseases and the aggressiveness of tumors, as well as the increase in sterility, autoimmune diseases and mental disorders.

Experience shows us that most of the people who survived the attacks, or witnessed the bombings, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other psychological problems. These traumas can be permanent, which means they require treatment and professional help.

GT: You initiated legal proceedings against NATO for the use of depleted uranium ammunition before the High Court in Belgrade, representing around 4,000 victims. What motivated you to start this process?

Aleksic: Twenty years before me, immediately after September 17, 2000, the FRY accused the leaders of NATO member countries before the Serbian court in Belgrade of the crime committed by using depleted uranium ammunition due to the serious consequences for people's health, but the verdict was soon revoked. And I am the first individual who, after considering all possibilities, initiated proceedings against NATO in 2021. I was motivated by the desire for justice since my mother was a direct victim of the bombardment with depleted uranium munitions, contracted cancer and later died. Also, many of my relatives and friends fell ill from cancer caused by depleted uranium, and it happened that every house on the street where my mother lived had a victim of NATO aggression. Therefore, everything I have done so far has been in the interest of protecting the rights of my clients, with the aim of achieving not only justice but also the right to compensation for the victims in terms of achieving the necessary financial assistance for expensive treatment. I also wanted to prevent similar incidents in the future. I made the decision thanks to the fact that all Italian soldiers, who fell ill and died of cancer during their stay in Kosovo and Metohija in the service of NATO, received high compensation claims by the decision of the Italian court.

GT: It has already been four years since the first lawsuit was filed, and there are still no results. What complicates and delays this court process?

Aleksic: Proceedings against organizations such as NATO can be extremely complex and challenging for several reasons. First of all, proceedings against international organizations include the application of international law, which means that the issue of jurisdiction and immunity may be raised, which may be decisive for the outcome of the proceedings. At the same time, it is not only necessary to prove the use of depleted uranium ammunition, but also to confirm that this ammunition directly led to the damage alleged by the prosecutors. In the case of the Serbian victims, this is very expensive, and usually requires that analysis be done abroad, which requires additional time. Therefore, it is necessary to secure financial resources and arm yourself with exceptional patience for this long and demanding process.

GT: Did you feel any kind of pressure from NATO structures during the activities on the preparation and submission of lawsuits to the competent court?

Aleksic: No, I was not exposed to any pressure from NATO structures, either from the media or politics. I believe that I would feel the slightest attempt at pressure of that kind, just as I believe that NATO is counting on being exempt from these lawsuits as it has immunity. And on the other hand, I received support, above all from my family and my friends. Moreover, my legal team and I have great help and support from our colleague, the Italian lawyer Angelo Fiore Tartaglia, whose experience in court proceedings in the defense of sick soldiers who fell ill with cancer during the mission in Kosovo and Metohija is valuable to us. We are also helped by doctors, physicists and numerous other experts who dealt with the impact of depleted uranium on human health and the natural environment, as well as the people who survived 78 days of NATO aggression. I have to admit that the expected help from our Serbian lawyers, to my great regret, was absent.

GT: How do you rate the chances of getting through all these processes? What effect do you expect it to have around the world?

Aleksic: Of course, I am aware of the power of an organization such as NATO. But this does not necessarily mean that it is impossible to win against NATO in court, which is also confirmed by the case of Italian soldiers who received high compensation claims. The outcome depends on various factors, including the evidence, legal arguments, jurisdictional rules and other circumstances of the case. Their success will depend on the quality of the legal strategy, argumentation and presentation of the case before the court. 

If I could win the case against NATO and prove responsibility for the use of depleted uranium ammunition and the consequences it caused, it could have a significant demonstrative effect around the world. Such an outcome could send a strong message about the need to respect international law and humanitarian principles in military actions. It could also serve as an example of research and presentation of human rights in the context of international conflicts. However, it should be kept in mind that legal proceedings can be uncertain, given that the most powerful countries in the world trample international law for the sake of their own interests. I am determined not to give up the lawsuits, because that option is not acceptable to the Serbian people. I believe that the judicial authorities of the Republic of Serbia will conduct the proceedings in accordance with the law and conduct the process on the principles of justice and independence.

GT: How are funds provided for this process, which includes high court fees and expensive analysis necessary in the evidentiary procedure?

Aleksic: Unfortunately, all the funds necessary for conducting court proceedings are provided exclusively by my clients, that is, cancer patients who also pay for the court fees, the costs of necessary analysis and expert cases. My law office does not charge for their services, because I want to contribute to the protection of the rights to life of my 4,000 clients who suffered from cancer as a result of the use of depleted uranium ammunition. According to the NATO alliance itself, as many as 15 tons of this dangerous radioactive material were dropped on the FRY, which would be enough to create 170 nuclear bombs, similar to those dropped on Hiroshima, according to scientists. After all, this is best evidenced by the results of blood analysis of our sick clients conducted in the relevant laboratory in Turin, because we could not find a laboratory in Serbia that would do this. And the results show that some people have 500 times more uranium in their bodies than is allowed, and 100 times more heavy metals that are toxic and dangerous to our clients' lives.